The Rohingya are caught in the contest for influence in Myanmar between China and the West, writes Alan Philps
Brutally put, the Rohingya are pawns in a big power game
When Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein, the head of the UN rights body, declared that the mass expulsion of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar appeared to be a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the country’s security forces, he was hardly going out on a limb. More than 300,000 Rohingya have fled into Bangladesh over the past three weeks as their villages were torched by Buddhist thugs.
Gen Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Myanmar armed forces, has not minced his words, declaring that it was necessary to complete “unfinished business” left over from the Second World War. It can only be assumed that the business in question is the removal of the country’s largest Muslim minority.
What has been surprising, however, is the near silence of Western politicians on this catastrophe. While Muslim countries have expressed outrage – the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken of genocide – the West has played down the events. The White House merely expressed concern about the “ongoing crisis”, failing to mention the Rohingya or the fact that they had been driven from their homes across the border into Bangladesh.
The facts are not hard to come by. A BBC reporter, who was being escorted by officials who wanted to show the Rohingya supposedly burning their own villages, came across Buddhist militants torching Muslim homes under the protective eye of the security forces.
The big question is why the West has been so mealy-mouthed about these outrageous abuses carried out in a country still run by its rapacious generals, even if it is taking steps towards democracy. The answer has a well-known human face, but the truth really lies in the contest between China and the West and its allies for influence in Myanmar.
The face belongs to Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of the independence hero of Burma (as the country was then called) who was assassinated when she was two, but who abandoned home and family to oppose the ruling generals, spending 15 years under house arrest before her National League for Democracy spectacularly triumphed in an election in 2015.
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With her frail figure, flowers in her hair and passionate defence of the universal values of freedom and democracy, Suu Kyi became a secular saint in the West during her long years of house arrest. But since winning the election and becoming the equivalent of prime minister – her official title is State Counsellor – she has mightily disappointed her admirers abroad.
She has refused to condemn the military’s assaults on the Rohingya leading up to the current campaign. Talk of the Rohingya – a term she refuses to use – being expelled is a “huge iceberg of misinformation” put about by terrorists, she says.
The terrorists she refers to are the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group which burst on the scene with an armed attack on a police post in September 2016, after which the army forced 75,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh. They struck again on August 25, killing 12 in a series of attacks, which provoked the current crisis.
The army’s response is clearly disproportionate. All the evidence points to the army using the ARSA attack as an excuse to expel the Rohingya. Given western sensitivities about Muslim terrorists, the army can be assured that Washington is not going to leap to the defence of the Rohingya, even though the armed insurgents are a recent phenomenon spawned by decades of oppression.
Since 1982, the Rohingya have been deprived of citizenship and state employment and declared illegal “Bengali immigrants” despite a recorded history going back centuries.
Some commentators suggest that the “cult” of Ms Suu Kyi has silenced tongues in the West – the shock of seeing the Nobel peace prize winner whitewashing ethnic cleansing is too much. At the same time there is much questioning why she has turned into a tough Buddhist nationalist.
Perhaps the answer it is that the stubbornness she showed during her house arrest is an underappreciated part in her character. Having moved from campaigner to politician and gained a certain level of power – though she has no control of the military – she is determined not to give in to the army’s provocation and by being shown incapable of reining in the security forces, have no choice but to resign.
These are questions which only she can answer. What is clear is that there is a geopolitical reason for western politicians biting their tongues. A few years ago it seemed that Myanmar – the poorest country in Southeast Asia – was destined to become an economic colony of China, which was interested in its minerals and timber and its location as a land route giving access to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the maritime bottleneck of the Strait of Malacca.
For the military, falling into the clutches of China was a damaging prospect. The generals decided to deploy Ms Suu Kyi and announce a free election, which had the miraculous effect of bringing western support including a visit by President Barack Obama.
India no less than China has an interest in the future of Myanmar. For India and the West, Ms Suu Kyi is key to balancing Chinese influence. To condemn her might drive her into the arms of China.
And what does China think? Global Times, a newspaper which reflects thinking in Beijing for a foreign audience, offered strong support for Ms Suu Kyi. “Myanmar is a heaven for saints who rebel and a graveyard for those who govern,” it said in an editorial. “She has to take pragmatic measures or even make compromises in face of development conundrums and ethnic issues, rather than make it a priority to protect her image.”
Brutally put, the fate of the Rohingya is a compromise that Ms Suu Kyi must make to stay in power. Pawns in a big power game, no one apart from the UN seems to care about them.